Must We Insist that the Very Words of Scripture are Inspired?1
There is a tendency in some evangelical circles to drive a wedge between revelation (the transcendent Word of God) and the Bible (understood as man’s written record of or witness to the Word). It is said that we cannot identify the words of Scripture with divine revelation. Continue reading . . .
There is a tendency in some evangelical circles to drive a wedge between revelation (the transcendent Word of God) and the Bible (understood as man’s written record of or witness to the Word). It is said that we cannot identify the words of Scripture with divine revelation. Rather, the former is the sacramental means or instrumentality by which the latter encounters or engages us experientially. The writings of Scripture are said to mediate the revelatory Word to us. But the former are not identical with the latter. Or so they say.
I believe, on the other hand, what Augustine meant when he put into God’s mouth the words: “Indeed, O man, what My Scripture says, I say” (Confessions, 13.29; emphasis mine). Scripture is thus the “transcript of divine speech” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 28). In his article on “Inspiration”, Packer unpacks the significance of this principle:
“Christ and his apostles quote Old Testament texts not merely as what, e.g., Moses, David or Isaiah said (see Mk. 7:10, 12:36, 7:6; Rom. 10:5, 11:9, 10:20, etc.), but also as what God said through these men (see Acts 4:25, 28:25, etc.), or sometimes simply what ‘he’ (God) says (e.g., 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:5,8), or what the Holy Ghost says (Heb. 3:7, 10:15). Furthermore, Old Testament statements, not made by God in their contexts, are quoted as utterances of God (Mt. 19:4f.; Heb. 3:7; Acts 13:34f.; citing Gen. 2:24; Ps. 95:7; Is. 55:2 respectively). Also, Paul refers to God’s promise to Abraham and his threat to Pharaoh, both spoken long before the biblical record of them was written, as words which Scripture spoke to these two men (Gal. 3:8; Rom. 9:17); which shows how completely he equated the statements of Scripture with the utterance of God” (The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas et al. [London: IVP, 1962], 564).
It would help us to distinguish between the concept of divine revelation and that of inspiration.
Revelation is the activity of God by which he unveils or discloses or makes known what is, to humanity, otherwise unknowable. It is God making himself known to those shaped in his image. Revelation is what God does, not what mankind achieves. It is a divinely initiated disclosure, not an effort or endeavor or achievement on the part of mankind. “Revelation does not mean man finding God, but God finding man, God sharing His secrets with us, God showing us Himself. In revelation, God is the agent as well as the object” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 47).
The God of the Bible, notes Donald Bloesch, “is not a God who is discovered in the depths of nature or uncovered in human consciousness. Nor is he a God who is immediately discernible in the events of history, . . . For the living God to be known, he must make himself known, and he has done this in the acts and words recorded in Scripture” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 20).
Much has been made of an alleged distinction between revelation as propositional and revelation as personal. Since God is himself a person, so some say, revelation cannot be propositional (or at least, not primarily so). Revelation is God making himself known; the event of disclosing his person to other persons. But this distinction should not be pressed too far. Again, Packer is helpful:
“Personal friendship between God and man grows just as human friendships do – namely, through talking; and talking means making informative statements, and informative statements are propositions. . . . [Indeed] to say that revelation is non-propositional is actually to depersonalize it. . . . To maintain that we may know God without God actually speaking to us in words is really to deny that God is personal, or at any rate that knowing Him is a truly personal relationship” (Packer, 52-3).
In other words, revelation is a verbal activity, in the sense that “God has communicated with man by means of significant utterances: statements, questions, and commands, spoken either in His own person or on His behalf by His own appointed messengers and instructors” (Packer, 63). This does not mean that God is less active, less personal, as if he were nothing but a celestial lecturer. He discloses himself by powerful acts in history, encountering his people, showing himself gracious by redeeming them, kind by forgiving them, strong by delivering them, etc. The Bible “itself is essentially a recital of His doings, an explanatory narrative of the great drama of the bringing in of His kingdom, and the saving of the world” (71). Let us not forget that faith is often portrayed in Scripture as trusting, often against great odds, what God has said – see Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Heb. 6:13ff.; 11:8-13,17; 11:33.
The fact that revelation is verbal does not mean that knowing God is simply a matter of memorizing texts or cataloging doctrines. “But what the claim that revelation is essentially verbal does imply is that no historical event, as such, can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan. Providential happenings may serve to remind us, more or less vividly, that God is at work (cf. Acts 14:17), but their link, if any, with His saving purpose cannot be known until He Himself informs us of it. No event is self-interpreting at this level” (72).
Again, “all history is, in one sense, God’s deed, but none of it reveals Him except in so far as He Himself talks to us about it. God’s revelation is not through deeds without words (a dumb charade!) any more than it is through words without deeds; but it is through deeds which He speaks to interpret, or, putting it more biblically, through words which His deeds confirm and fulfill” (73). Says Packer:
“For no public historical happening, as such (an exodus, a conquest, a captivity, a crucifixion, an empty tomb), can reveal God apart from an accompanying word from God to explain it, or a prior promise which it is seen to confirm or fulfill. Revelation in its basic form is thus of necessity propositional; God reveals Himself by telling us about Himself, and what He is doing in His world” (76-77).
The notion of propositional revelation in no way denies the revelatory activity of God in events, personal encounters, or in the dynamic and relational ways whereby he engages his people and makes himself immediately and experientially known to them. We read in Hebrews 1:1 that “long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” The “many ways” in which God “revealed” himself personally included theophanies, angelic visitations, an audible voice from heaven, visions, dreams, supernatural writing, inward impressions, natural phenomena, etc. But in each of these instances the divine disclosures introduced or confirmed by these means were propositional in substance and verbal in form.
In other words, whereas not every statement or revelatory deed comes to us in strict propositional form, all do in fact presuppose a proposition on the basis of which a truth claim about the nature of reality is being made.
Another characteristic of revelation is that it is progressive, i.e., cumulative. God has not revealed himself comprehensively at any one stage in history or in any one event. Revelation is a series of divine disclosures, each of which builds upon and unpacks or unfolds that which preceded it. Revelation moves from what is piecemeal and partial and incomplete (but always accurate) to what is comprehensive and final and unified. This contrast between the incomplete and complete, between the partial and the full, is not a contrast between false and true, inaccurate and accurate, but a contrast between shadow and substance, between type and antitype, between promise and fulfillment.
Inspiration, on the other hand, was the related process whereby God preserved the biblical authors from error when communicating, whether by his voice or in writing, that which he had shown them. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture, that is to say, he acted to insure that what the human authors intended by their words is equivalent to what God intended (also referred to as concursive inspiration). Thus “each resultant oracle was as truly a divine utterance as a human, as direct a disclosure of what was in God’s mind as of what was in the prophet’s” (Packer, 91). The Spirit thus brought the free and spontaneous thoughts of the human author into coincidence with the thoughts of God.
Many question how this can be done. They contend that if God’s control over what the biblical authors said was exhaustive, they must have written as mindless automatons. On the other hand, if their minds operated freely according to their own volitional creativity, then God cannot have kept them free from error. But this dilemma “rests on the assumption that full psychological freedom of thought and action, and full subjection to divine control, are incompatible” (93).
The doctrine of verbal, plenary (i.e., complete, total) inspiration means that the words of the Bible are the words of God. This doesn’t mean that God spoke every word himself, but that the words spoken by the authors of Scripture are the words that God desired them to speak in the revelation of himself.
Thus there is no significant difference between the ultimate authority of God and the immediate authority of Scripture. “The authority of Scripture is the divine authority of God Himself speaking” (96). Some argue that one cannot stand under the authority of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and at the same time stand under the authority of the written Word, the Bible. This is a false antithesis. Jesus Christ is the lord of the Scriptures and in the latter the former is revealed and made known and his will unfolded. To obey the latter is to obey the former. To disobey the latter is to disobey the former.